I didn’t think I was going to watch Evil until I saw that it starred not only Mike Colter (Luke Cage, The Defenders) but Michael Emerson (Person of Interest, Lost). That casting made me think I’d give it a try. It’s not my favorite kind of story, and it’s on a network that tends to produce mainstream programming that is predictably black-and-white, with a lot of protagonist-centered morality (if our heroes want to do it, then it must be okay). Blue Bloods and all the iterations of NCIS come immediately to mind. A story about a wannabe exorcist and a forensic psychologist fighting devils seemed primed for disaster. On the other hand, I love to watch Michael Emmerson work.
For a storyline clinging to a very familiar plot (a group of demons from hell have come to earth to cause trouble!) the story has some refreshing changes and is convincingly creepy. The psychologist, Kristen Bouchard (Katja Herbers), plays against type, and the addition of Christine Lahti as her hard-living, fun-loving and helpful mom Sheryl spices up the entire show. Kristen is an expert witness for the District Attorney, In Episode 1 she has determined that a mass murderer is sane and able to stand trial, until David Acosta, a priest in training (Colter) introduces another alternative; that the killer is possessed by a demon. Kristen, who is a natural skeptic, scoffs at this but is willing to work with Acosta and his technical guru, Ben (Aasif Mandvi). As the first episode plays out, Kristen learns to her surprise that Davis is surprisingly open-minded and willing to look at environmental and secular reasons for behavior. She also begins having night-terrors that include visits from a slimy demonic character that calls itself George.
Bouchard has four daughters, one of whom is middle-school age; she has a psychology degree and she was a mountain-climber. Her husband is still off leading tourists up Mt. Everest while she raises their girls. (Or is he? Or is he, as someone or something has implied to Kristen’s girls… dead?) Kristen doesn’t seem quite old enough to have done all these things, but what do I know? I also don’t understand why Acosta, a former journalist and apparent priest in training, isn’t in a seminary somewhere. I mean, I know the Catholic Church is losing membership in North America, but it still has seminaries. Maybe because he’s has visions of God, David gets special treatment. And maybe that’s why he was assigned the backlog of exorcism requests to evaluate — or maybe that’s more like giving an assignment to the intern.
Michael Emerson plays Leland Thompson, a forensic psychologist too, who takes over Kristen’s caseload after she leaves the DA’s office to work for the church. Thompson is also either a demon or a psychopath, who enjoys manipulating people into doing evil. Personally, I’m voting for demon. As the show progresses, he circles around Kristen’s family, seducing her mother and getting uncomfortably close to her four daughters.
In the first six or seven episodes they’ve done a good job of planting clues. David had a vision of God while he was still a journalist embedded with a company of Marines in Afghanistan. There is also a woman named Julia in his past. When Ben takes on a “possessed” online smart-speaker, strange voices start speaking to his sister in their home through their smart speaker. I also love, and am creeped out by, the bleed-through of the demonic creatures into technology.
Already, the story has laid out plenty of areas for temptation for David and Kristen, and Thompson is exploiting all of them. Kristen is married; David is supposed to be celibate, yet they are sexually attracted to each other. David has a spiritual temptation as well; to induce religious visions, he’s taken to ingesting shrooms. Can he trust the visions the hallucinogens give him?
Kristen, meanwhile, has already made one decision that gave her an ethical struggle, and she’s also assaulted Thompson. Not that he didn’t deserve it, but it’s a little surprising that he didn’t press charges. With Kristen in jail for assault she would be unable to protect her family and you’d think Thompson would take advantage of that.
A Da Vinci painting figures in the plotline, and so do “the Sixty,” presumably the demons that have come from hell. Apparently they are personally interested in David and his team, and that’s not good.
My favorite scary episode so far was the Halloween episode, which followed three storylines. David and Kristen observe at a real exorcism of a woman who may be possessed or schizophrenic. A rift opens between Kristen and David when she substitutes tap water for holy water in the priest’s vial without telling David of her plan. Ben, meanwhile, guest-stars on a ghost-hunting TV show and debunks a haunting. Mandvi brings just the right touch to practical, technical Ben.
Back at home, a reclusive neighbor girl comes to visit Kristen’s girls. She refuses to take off her mask and starts telling the girls scary stories. Then she leads them out to the graveyard. It was convincingly suspenseful.
The show is filmed in a suitably atmospheric and shadowy manner, and weaves gracefully between the creepy-scary (those night visits from George!) and the mundane. The writers do a good job of working in humor at the least-expected moment. There are also a few Easter eggs, I think, or at least one bit of inspired casting. In Episode 3, John Glover plays a Broadway producer, who may be possessed, or just a boss from hell. In 1998, Glover played the Devil in a Fox show called Brimstone, where a bunch of damned souls made a jailbreak out of hell. Coincidence? You decide.
The threat to the girls are convincing and scary, and tap into every modern parent’s fears; social media, video games, places where your kids can go and you can’t go with them.
Right now I’m enjoying the relationships. Emmerson and Lahti together on the screen are electric, and Thompson’s seduction of Sheryl adds a level of palpable danger. Colter has good on-screen presence and so does Herbers. The direction dances expertly into the surreal, and chooses to go with eerieness or strangeness rather than the obligatory startle, like the first time we see the demon George, or the little girl in the video game. An exchange between Kristen and Sheryl after Kristen has cut Thompson with a knife was so deadpan and strange it could have worked on a show like Breaking Bad. I hope the showrunners can keep up this strange mix.
I’m curious to see what they all do next.